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Kick-Ass (2010)

March 18, 2013 2 comments

Kick-Ass

It’s sometimes appropriate to explain my choice of films from the back catalogue. In this case, I’m motivated to look back for two reasons. The first is that I almost paid to see this when it did the circuit. Wherever possible, I go to see the films with my wife and am therefore constrained to avoid films that are, by her standards, gratuitously violent. The second reason is the news that a sequel is on its way. The trailer is already out and I was curious to see what I missed and thereby gain some insight into how well the sequel may fare. Kick-Ass (2010) is a beautifully subversive film about “superheroes”. I mean, if you think about it, there are all these millions of people around the world who read the comic books. They are dyed-in-the-wool fans of Superthis or Incrediblethat or Fantasticwho, yet no-one ever tries it in the real world. Ah well, that’s not actually true, is it? For a while, children used to jump off furniture pretending they could fly like Superman. Boy did they ever have a surprise coming to them when they woke up in hospital with broken limbs and concussion. Indeed, so serious did this problem become that television shows used to start off with a warning that no-one at home should attempt anything even vaguely heroic. It says a great deal about the gullibility of the young that such warnings should be deemed necessary. But back to this film (which does not have any warnings up front).

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Chloë Grace Moretz armed and dangerous

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Chloë Grace Moretz armed and dangerous

 

It’s making the point that most people are too afraid to intervene when they see criminals at work. Ask yourself honestly. If you were walking down a street and came across a mugging, would you remonstrate with the knife-wielding thief taking the cellphone from the wimp, or would you immediately turn around and walk the other way? Yes, self-preservation is one of these basic human instincts and no-one should think any differently unless they put on the uniform of a police officer or are authorised by the government to carry concealed weaponry of great power that can terminate anyone with extreme prejudice just by twitching a finger. Ah, wait, there’s the uniform thing. All superheroes have uniforms and not all of them have superpowers. Batman has gadgets, Green Arrow has a bow, Black Widow fights rather well with her bare hands, and so on. Police officers have their batons, tasers and guns. Even high school kids with no brains could put on a uniform and become a hero.

 

Yeh, like that’s ever going to happen!

 

So this kid, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) buys a uniform and practises not climbing tall buildings or jumping across the gap between those buildings. He knows the line between fantasy and the real world cannot easily be crossed. In his first outing to prevent the theft of a car, he also discovers a knife can deliver a painful wound to the stomach and that standing in the middle of the road can get you hospitalised when a car hits you. Some lessons have to be learned, but the aftermath of the injuries is quite a lot of metal reinforcing his bones and fairly extensive damage to his nerve endings so he doesn’t feel the pain (as much). When he comes out of hospital, one of the girls in school Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca) befriends him (and not for the obvious reason). This partially restores his self-confidence so, when he next takes on three experienced gang members, he’s like one of these punching bags with a round bottom. Every time he gets hit, he bounces back and whacks them with his batons. This being the cellphone camera era, ten or so innocent bystanders video this heroic losing performance. He’s still fundamentally incompetent as a fighter, but he’s become a star of the internet. He calls himself Kick-Ass.

Mark Strong and Christopher Mintz-Plasse loving every minute as villains

Mark Strong and Christopher Mintz-Plasse loving every minute as villains

 

In another part of town, a loving father, Damon Macready aka Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage), teaches his daughter Mindy Macready aka Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), basic survival skills and a real life criminal, Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), worries that someone is interfering with his business. His only problem is where to find good help because his henchpersons are not overendowed in the brain department. So here comes the crunch. This film is a very clever juxtaposition between real menace and innocent make-believe. Next to our hero, even local petty criminals are lethal. Step up the level and the drug syndicate kingpin and his henchpeople are serious criminals who let nothing stand in their way. They have bought police protection and, some years ago, they framed a young police officer, Damon Macready, as a drug dealer and had him locked up. He’s emerged as a Batmanlike vigilante and his sole purpose in life is to bring down the D’Amico gang. He and his daughter are coldblooded killers and are slowly working their way through the lower reaches of the criminal empire, eliminating dealers and taking their product and money. By accident, Kick-Ass finds himself caught between the two opposing forces (not counting the corrupt and not corrupt police officers). This is not the right place for a young boy to find himself. But the kingpin sends a message when he kills a Kick-Ass wannabe. Whether it’s the original idiot or a fannish impersonator, every Kick-Ass found on the streets is fair game. When Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the kingpin’s son, calls himself Red Mist and pretends to be a crime fighter to lure out Kick-Ass, life gets complicated.

 

This film very cleverly plays the superhero game with one important variation. The babygirl Mindy can kill almost everyone she meets. This breaks the usual convention because children are not supposed to be vicious killers (or to swear quite so fluently). Our wimpy hero must balance two competing fantasies: to bed the most desirable girl in the school and to live to enjoy the girl, something he’s likely to find challenging if he continues to act the part of Kick-Ass. So he tries to retire, but discovers that with no power comes the responsibility to make up for past mistakes. Matthew Vaughn who shares the scriptwriting with Jane Goldman has struck a very delicate balance between a comic book superhero film and straight satire. The result takes itself very seriously and is all the more enjoyable for not mocking or overtly sending up the genre conventions. Aaron Taylor-Johnson walks a fine line between incredible naïveté and a stubborn determination not to embarrass himself (too much). His performance holds the film together. Surprisingly, Nicholas Cage manages to be a sympathetic character, leaving it to Mark Strong to do the villain with considerable style. Kick-Ass is great fun which may suggest the sequel may be worth seeing even though Chloë Grace Moretz is all grown up now and the shock value of her role as Hit Girl is lost.

 

John Carter (2012)

In 1911, Edgar Rice Burroughs began publishing the serialisation of what would become the Princess of Mars. In 1912, the individual episodes were collected together and published as the first of the Barsoom novels. As they say, it was the beginning of the history of science fantasy in which escapist recreations of Wild West novels were relocated to planets like Mars. So white heroes would battle Red Indian surrogates and local cattle barons while fending off monsters of different varieties. Not forgetting the need to rescue damsels in distress and have sex with them. In the traditional values novels, it would be necessary for the hero to marry the Princess to facilitate the sex thing. Life could be tough for men one-hundred years ago. ERB, as he’s affectionately known, is acknowledged as the father of this subgenre, it being customary to blame him for setting the bar so low in the creation of this subgenre’s clichés. So this is both the strength and weakness of ERB as source material. He was the “first”, but he’s been endlessly copied. This pushes his ideas so far past their sell-by dates, it’s dangerous to bring them to the screen without giving them a major overhaul to make them more acceptable to the modern audience. The more reverential the film adaptation, the worse it’s likely to be.

 

I had vague hopes John Carter (2012) would be bearable given the choice of scriptwriter and director. Andrew Stanton has been responsible for some of the best animated films of all time. There was a chance some of the inventiveness and wit of Wall-E, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc and the Toy Stories would find their way into his first live-action work. Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed. At 132 minutes in length, this is a leviathan becalmed in turgid waters. However you want to view the original novel, it’s a slight story. Spinning it out beyond the two hour mark is a serious misjudgment. Although no-one actually left the cinema during the showing, there was increasing shuffling and the pale lights of phones and handheld devices indicated people were catching up on the latest emails and chatting with friends. As we emerged blearily into the light, there was a general sense of relief. We looked around for a celebratory T-shirt to confirm we had been there and endured.

Taylor Kitch making the transition from Earthman to sword-wielding barbarian

 

So Taylor Kitch won the competition to be the eponymous John Carter and, truth be told, he does his best. The problem lies in the script. He starts off in the period immediately after the Civil War. The US Cavalry want to recruit him into their ranks to help fight the Red Indians, but he’s been numbed by the death of his wife and is only interested in the pursuit of gold. This gives him the chance to demonstrate his mindless fighting skills. He could just respectfully decline the Yankees’ invitation and then passively resist. Instead, he takes every chance to lash out and is beaten insensible for his troubles. When finally able to break out of the stockade, he gets trapped in a cave and then discovers the First Born Martian technologist who materialises behind him is not bulletproof. Seconds later, he’s holding the transportation key in his hand and finds himself on Barsoom.

Ciaran Hinds and Lynn Collins, father and daughter on the side of light

 

An uncountable number of minutes later, he’s captured by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and his four-armed buddies. The motion capture/CGI of these creatures is quite good. There’s some plausibility to the way they move without the extra pair of arms getting in the way. To pursue the Wild West analogy, these are the plains Red Indians of Mars. Ignore the twelve feet of height and their green colour. Think Geronimo and his tribes and you’re in the groove. Fortunately Sola (Samantha Morton) gives John Carter a slug of the instant language drink and he’s pitched into the local political scene. Too many minutes later, Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris arrives on the scene in full battle mode. She’s being chased by Sab Than (Dominic West) who’s egged on by the First Born’s leader Matai Shang (Mark Strong). To cut the ponderous story down to its essentials, Ciaran Hinds (Tardos Mors — all-round nice guy and Lynn Collins’ Dad) offers appeasement to the evil hordes but, as we might predict, Taylor Kitch and Lynn Collins hit it off and, despite the best efforts of Mark Strong, they defeat these incompetent horde people. To celebrate victory, Earth and Barsoom get married and are poised to claim the secrets of the ninth element. This will enable them to use the Temple of the Sun to rescue Barsoom from imminent destruction through the accelerating water loss. Except, John Carter ends up back on Earth so he can tell ERB his story — a deeply frustrating thing to happen when you’ve just enjoyed your first night of connubial bliss with Lynn Collins.

Mark Strong doing his best to be an evil First Born — the lighting helps

 

The real problem with this film is that it takes itself way too seriously. If there was even a flicker of humour, it would make it bearable — like the absurd distances Carter can jump are treated as normal. But everyone is so worthy on the side of good and the bad guys are really bad, albeit stupid, so it just turns into a parade of the usual suspects. There are a couple of battles in the air as stately galleons pummel each other with different levels of weaponry, there are sword fights, one remarkably ferocious as Carter sees off an entire warrior clan “single-handed” — those four-armed green meanies on horseback don’t stand a chance against our Mexican jumping bean — and an arena in which giant white apes wait to tear off four or six limbs depending on your species. Worse, there’s even a Martian dog that’s imprinted on John Carter at birth and relentlessly pursues him across the face of Mars with a level of loyalty Lassie would have admired. There’s not even any gratuitous nudity or sex. This is a Disney film and nothing family unfriendly can appear on the screen (except a lot of people of different species get hacked to pieces — without too much blood of any colour being seen to be spilled).

 

So if you’re an unreconstructed fan of ERB, you will probably enjoy John Carter. Everyone else should save their money and hope for something better later on in the year.

 

This film was short-listed for the 2012 Nebula Award.

 

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008)

December 27, 2011 Leave a comment

The question immediately coming to mind is a simple one. What exactly is a fairy story? It would be rather trite just to list all the stories which feature supernatural creatures like, well, fairies. . . So let’s offer a more sweeping suggestion that a fairy story is one in which there are elements of magic with the possibility of enchantment. In the olden days when we used to sit around the fire for warmth as the night drew in, we would tell ourselves these tales. They were a part of our oral tradition. This is not to confuse them with myths and legends because they more often represent themselves as having elements of truth. Both those who tell and those who listen spellbound, know a fairy story is not intended to be taken as a literal truth. And in this lies the reason for their slow transformation from a purely adult form of fiction to tales we tell our children, to the new varieties of story we come back to as adults. Some like Pan’s Labyrinth or The Company of Wolves are modern parables of our time, intended as polemics or the delivery system for moral improvement. Others like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day are more “harmless”, being intended as mere romantic dalliances through which we can distract ourselves from the rigours of the world.

Frances McDormand fending off the real social secretary

It would be difficult to find someone not familiar with Cinderella. The story seems to have embedded itself in cultures around the world as an inspiration to the oppressed to have a little more confidence in themselves and find a prince(ss). This film is a variation on the theme as we see the story from the point of view of a slightly surprising fairy godmother. The titular Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) is an intelligent woman who finds herself out of joint in London, a city on the eve of war. Life has passed her by. Her first and only love was killed in the trenches in WW I. No-one else has ever moved into this clergyman daughter’s circle, condemning her to the drudgery of playing governess to families she dislikes. Having lost three jobs in quick succession, the most recent because she disapproved of her employer’s drinking, the employment agency decides to drop her as unsuited to the life of service. In desperation, she steals the business card of a new female client, thinking she too wants a governess.

Amy Adams who is really a Grubb from America

So, by accident, she ends up in the flat occupied by Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams). This is a young American woman who’s one lover away from destitution in London. The flat she currently occupies is owned by a fairly sleazy nightclub owner, Nick (Mark Strong) who lets her sing with the band. From this platform, she’s met the piano player, Michael (Lee Pace) and Phil (Tom Payne) who has within his gift the leading role in a new West End musical. She sleeps with all three because she’s lonely and ambitious, but is equally exploited by two of her lovers. In the midst of all this superficiality, Edythe (Shirley Henderson) dictates outerwear fashion and her potential husband, Joe (Ciaran Hinds) designs lingerie for the well-to-do.

Ciaran Hinds making a living in women's underwear

At any moment, war with Germany may be declared and mannequins in fashionable shop windows sport the latest designs in gas masks. The social bubble that has carried people through the depression of the 1930s and into relative prosperity is about to be punctured. All this social magic will disappear as the Blitz begins. At this cusp between peace and war, its occurs to these people that they should take decisions for their futures. The catalyst for this fairly momentous change is Miss Pettigrew, whose drive to find employment gives her desperate energy. She has known hardship and pain. Hers is the voice of experience that, when needed, will speak the truth.

Lee Pace as a penniless piano-player

Perhaps that’s where the real magic comes into play. She can only find her way into these people’s lives by dishonestly claiming to be sent by an employment agency but, once in place, she has a unique opportunity to provoke others into hard decisions. It’s inherently ironic that a liar should become the mouthpiece of truth. The script is a pleasing balance between hope and despair. David Magee and Simon Beaufoy have done a good job in recapturing the mood of the original novel by Winifred Watson. The direction from Bharat Nalluri is light but sure. The result is entertaining in a way only possible in a fairy story. The right people must come together in the ending but, on the way, we must see beyond the external appearances for the reality beneath. The poster says it all with Joe’s lingerie keeping London’s socialites looking good, and two women from different generations and cultural backgrounds finding common cause in the pursuit of happiness — physical and economic security is less feasible given the outbreak of war. For the record, unlike the original Cinderella, events are largely confined to a single day and the morning after. The oppression necessary to trigger the acceptance of change comes from within. These people are all unhappy in the roles they have chosen for themselves. They can only find freedom when they give up the false dreams and decide to be true to themselves. Put like this, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day may sound a bit trite but, onscreen, it produces a heart-warming response.

As a final thought, I’m a sucker for the piano played well and, in the midst of some good big band numbers and slightly anachronistic jazz, there’s some great piano. Thanks, perhaps, to Paul Englishby who wrote the original score.

Green Lantern (2011)

The question for thought today is not, perhaps, as simple as it might first appear. Is it possible to have a comic book film that’s actually a good film? Or, is the best you can hope for is that the result is a good comic book film?

 

Let’s start the answer by listing what’s silly in this latest offering into the summer season. Green Lantern contains two comic book elements that reduce scale to manageable proportions. The first is the ability of individuals to travel vast interstellar distances in a few minutes. In the first stages of the film, we seem to have travel essentially based on the old-fashioned notion of spaceships. Yes, I know this is distinctly stone age technology but, when we first meet Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison) he’s jaunting around in a spaceship. That may explain why Parallax is able to make such a devastating attack before Abin Sur can defend himself. Yet, when Hal Jordan is first transported to Oa, the journey is effectively instantaneous. Perhaps the ring opens a worm hole for long distance travel. For “local” travel, Sinestro (Mark Strong) leads (from behind) a team of the elite Lanterns against Parallax who all fly through space to confront him. It’s a useful ability to be able to survive in space without a suit, breathing in a vacuum without apparent assistance but, again, this is a necessary suspension of disbelief so we can get on with the story. Unlike Star Trek, which does accept physical limitations on the speed of travel, this story requires us to zip around the galaxy, defying distance to maintain the pace of the story.

 

Second, we have the physical nature of Parallax itself. It starts off small, presumably running low on supplies while imprisoned on this remote planet. But it grows as it consumes the energy released by the fear of those under attack. After eating the population of two inhabited planets, it should therefore be of considerable size. More to the point, if it’s to consume all life on a planet, it must either take it a long time to suck the life out of everyone, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, or it must be able to spread itself around like a gas cloud and do the sucking on a more industrial scale. Yet when we finally see the size of the thing on Earth, it’s only the size of large aircraft hanger or a small city block. But for the story to work, our hero has to be able to confront the thing as a monster. That’s how it would be shown on the page of a comic book and, in cinema terms, it’s not an unreasonable choice to keep the beast small enough so that Hal can appear physically outmatched, yet have the wit and the will to defeat it.

Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan giving the Ring away

 

So, rather as the comic book replicates the Golden Age pulp conventions of science fiction, this version of Green Lantern “respects” or possibly pays homage to the early “wow factor” approach to constructing stories. It’s typical of the work first appearing in Astounding in which heroic stereotypes policed the galaxy (as with the Lensman series by E E Smith). In fact, taken in that spirit, Green Lantern proves to be a good comic book film, mixing fantasy and goofy science fiction in equal measures to give us all 114 minutes of fun. Yes, it’s fun. Indeed, there are even a couple of jokes that made the cinema audience laugh out loud.

 

Director Martin Campbell, taking a holiday from Zorro and the James Bond films, has contrived to take an unpromising origin story and make it feel quite reasonable in its own terms. I like the gentle introduction to Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) and Carol Ferris (Blake Lively). Of course, I’m using the word “gentle” to mean the dog fight with the next generation of AI fighter aircraft (think Icarus in a prophetic way). It’s an effective way of introducing the hackneyed backstory about his father, and meeting his somewhat dysfunctional family and friends. Once established, we have his selection by the ring and, after a drunken encounter to show he has the will (hopefully, he paid the hospital bills of those injured when he got back to Earth), he goes through his first round of training on Oa. Never mind he can take to flying as easily as stepping off into the air or quite quickly get the hang of how to use the ring for attack and defence. This is all part of the gonzo approach to the storytelling where he assimilates what he needs to know to be able to win through in the end.

Blake Lively as Carol Ferris looking bright enough to run a major corporation

 

I also like the way in which the “only too human” hero is able to joke about his own insecurities. It’s not so much that being fearless is part of the job description. It’s being brave enough to work through the fear to get the desired results that counts. Although coming to a better understanding of the real nature of courage is a well-worn trope, this does it as well as many other films. It’s not a question of having responsibility because of the great power you wield. It’s being able to access the great power despite your lack of confidence. Lots of déjà vu moments in there somewhere to enliven the passage of cinema time. The human threat from Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) is also nicely measured. The two transforming humans are both learning about their abilities, so it gives the emerging Lantern time to grow comfortable with the use of his powers. If he had met a fully formed enemy too early in his journey, Hal would have lost the fight. As it is, Hector gives Hal the chance to believe in himself — it’s surprising he never feels the need to practise using his new powers. Being a pilot, he just wings it. In this, Carol Ferris is allowed to play a proper role. This is not just an eye-candy, token woman. She has a brain and is not afraid to use it for thinking, flying jet planes and other stuff.

Peter Sarsgaard as Hector Hammond before his brain expands too much

 

So this is another enjoyable popcorn film for the summer season. It’s not pretending to be something greater than it is. Unlike the latest outing from J J Abrams, which is rather self-important, this takes simple pleasure in telling a Golden Age science fiction story. Although it began its life in a comic book, all concerned keep a straight face. One of the dangers in making films like this is that the director and crew start taking the mickey out of it, allowing too obvious mockery of the inherent stupidity of the ideas. This just keeps the pace going, making intelligent use of CGI to create modest effects from the ring and some quite impressive interplanetary scenes.

 

Answering my opening question, there have been one or two very good films that just happened to be about superheroes. Sadly, this is not one of them. As long as you’re only expecting a goodish comic book film, you won’t be disappointed. It’s just fun, albeit with intensely silly overtones.

 

For a review of the television animated series, see Green Lantern: The Animated Series (2011 – 13).

 

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